The Bees: A Review

I used to do my lunchtime-reading in the office pantry and would occasionally get asked, “What’s the book about?” Now this question frustrates me on two levels. First, don’t engage in a conversation with someone who’s reading. Second, I find it painfully difficult to answer that question from people who are only asking to make conversation. Don’t ask me that if you are not genuinely interested. Because how can I condense the plot of a book in 140-characters or less (which is how I am expected to answer that question, it seems.) This tiny rant has a point. My point is that this book will suffer so much when condensed to that sort of elevator talk. “It’s a literary thriller about bees.” It sounds slightly absurd and shallow, doesn’t it?

When in fact, The Bees covers multiple layers of themes, rich in parallels with the human experience. This is one of the most highly original and compelling books I have ever read. In fact, I like that it is likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because it captures the same sort of chilling reality.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest level in The Hive class. She was born different in a society where different means dysfunction and leads to immediate death. But Flora was saved from immediate death to experiment how The Hive can benefit from her abnormality. From feeding the newborns to doing sanitation work with her kin to becoming a forager, we journey with Flora as she slowly discovers the different facets of The Hive life. Fiercely loyal to The Queen (Accept.Obey.Serve.), until Flora breaks the sacred law of The Hive.

The Hive symbolizes power politics. Ruled by The Queen, it is a totalitarian government, chosen because of her ability to breed. But when Flora spends time with Queen Mother, we see someone who rules more on a ceremonial level. She was almost a prisoner and a victim. The real power belongs to The Hive Mind which controls and relays all the messages.

The Hive symbolizes religion. The Queen Mother as a ruler is treated as divine and her role to breed a divine right. It is through Devotions that the Sage class (who really are running the show behind the scenes) can control and sway the Sister Bees.

The Hive symbolizes the class struggle. Flora’s kin being the sanitation workers, the lowest class, they are without the ability of speech and exist only to clean. The foragers have probably the most physically demanding and dangerous task. They leave the safety of The Hive to collect pollen from all the flowers in the orchard. They face many potential dangers in the form of wasps, crows and spiders and the elements – rain, wind and snow. More than the class within The Hive, I think there is a bigger discussion in terms of Nature’s class/power struggle. Man hardly figures in the story, but when he does “visit” The Hive, it forces you to think about man’s (being at the top of food chain) nature of self-entitlement and disrespect for other creatures.

Another aspect of Flora’s struggle that resonated with me was how lonely she is. Because she keeps a terrible secret, Flora constantly has to keep her antennae closed off to keep her secret safe. When she develops a friendship with Sir Linden, it was both heartbreaking and beautiful to see.

One last thing that I want to bring up is the respect I have gained for the honeybees. We should realize how much hard work there is to produce honey and how they struggle with violence and danger everyday of their lives. No spoilers here but there’s one section that tackles how the bees handle the droughts of winter and it was the most chilling section of the book.

I was also awed at the complexity of the bees as an organism. The sections about Flora going to the garden to forage shows their physical strength. In an interview with Laline Paull, she mentions how signals are transmitted via the honeycombs through the bees’ feet and legs which have sensors like our ears that can hear these signals. Very interesting creatures.


On lending books

Judging by the amount of heartbreak and angst that readers have on the business of lending books (listen to this awesome discussion from the Dear Book Nerd podcast), it seems that all of us readers have been victimized by the irresponsible borrowers. Just recently, I did a massive book shelf re-organization when it hit me just how many books I have lost to lending. Because many of these lent books have gone to folks I have hardly any contact with anymore, I have accepted that those books are lost forever. However, there is one, The Book Thief that is lent out to a colleague in March 2014. I really loved this book and I know it’s one of those novels I would want to re-read or perhaps even read to my future son or daughter so I know I want it back! So I have devised a plan to get this book back to my shelf, where it belongs! (Not really! I did however cooked up plausible excuses to get the book back home. I came up with the “another friend wants to borrow the book, can I have it back?”)

I’ve asked bookish friends on Instagram and it seems we’ve all been victims of the book-lending that 1. some resolved not even to lend any books at all and 2. use a templated excuse to make sure the book is returned home – no matter what.

But, why do we bear this pain, dear fellow readers? Why can’t we just go up to those borrowers and say, “Give me my book back!” So here’s what I propose. From now on, let’s not hesitate to ask for our books to be returned. No excuses. No more being nice boys and girls.

Book and Song Mash-up

This post is inspired by Book Riot’s 11 Amazing Book-Song Pairings. It is inevitable, isn’t it? Both are creative forms of storytelling, lending interesting imagery and articulating emotions. Since I am as much a music nerd as I am bookish, here’s my own list of book and song pairings.

While some have direct literary references, others share similar themes and mood, and others just naturally fit (in my head, at least).

1. Radiohead’s 2+2=5 to George Orwell’s 1984

Well this is a no-brainer. The phrase 2+2=5 is of course the false propaganda in Orwell’s 1984, representing “the Party’s” thought control and manipulation. The track 2+2=5 is from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief CD. Recorded in 2002, the album was written at the time of the US War on Terror, exploring powerlessness and paranoia.

2. Accidental Babies by Damien Rice to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Damien Rice is one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I’ve always felt that there’s intensity and complexity in his songs and lyrics. This intensity perfectly reflects the mood of Constance and Oliver’s relationship. It deftly captures the feeling of insecurity in being the other and the intensity and sense of urgency of their relationship.
3.  I Lost You by The Walkmen to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

 The attraction between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is so palpable. But he had to sacrifice his greatest love to conform to a close-minded, malicious society.  The Walkmen’s big, rich, dramatic tune and Hamilton Leithauser singing with such longing perfectly matches The Age of Innocence’s mood.

4. Beirut’s Postcards from Italy to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

 Italy is that other in Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond’s relationship. At the blossoming of their love affair, Osmond likened their love to a Florentine summer day, “My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us – what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day – with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life and which you love today.” Sadly, Italy (Rome, in particular) also became Isabel’s prison, removing her from society and family.

5. White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

The song’s lyric “And I turned ’round and there you go. And Micheal you would fall,
And turn the white snow, Red as strawberries in the summertime.” The image of the red blood in the snow? We all know how Ethan Frome ends.